Lawsuits: Prison failed to act on inmate's warning before CO was murdered

The North Carolina inmate accused of murdering Sgt. Meggan Callahan in 2017 warned prison officials that he had homicidal thoughts

By Ames Alexander and Gavin Off
The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The North Carolina inmate accused of murdering Sgt. Meggan Callahan in 2017 warned prison officials that he had homicidal thoughts, but officials did nothing to prevent the attack, Callahan’s family has alleged in a pair of lawsuits.

Inmate Craig Wissink is accused of starting a fire and then beating Callahan with a fire extinguisher that she’d brought to douse the flames inside Bertie Correctional Institution, a state prison about 120 miles east of Raleigh.

Sgt. Meggan Callahan. (Photo/North Carolina DPS)
Sgt. Meggan Callahan. (Photo/North Carolina DPS)

2017 Observer investigation found that the unit Callahan oversaw was often understaffed and that many of the officers there were untrained rookies. Only four of Callahan’s officers were working the day she was killed, according to a Department of Labor report. That’s half the recommended number, several current and former officers said.

The lawsuits — one filed in federal court and one in state court — echo those findings.

The suits contend that two officers were near Callahan when she was attacked, and that neither went to her aid. Both officers were recent hires who lacked adequate experience and training, the lawsuits state.

Another officer was in the control booth and a fourth — who was trained and qualified — was in a different part of the prison at the time, the lawsuits state.

Callahan’s unit had “an inadequate number of trained or experienced corrections officers that day which placed an unreasonable risk upon Sgt. Callahan in her job,” the lawsuits state. “If DPS had followed its own safety procedures and paid attention to the warnings of imminent harm, Sgt. Callahan would not have been killed.”

Department of Public Safety officials would not comment on the suits because they are still pending, said department spokesman John Bull.

Warning before the attack

About a week before the killing, Wissink warned prison officials that he had homicidal thoughts and needed help for his mental health conditions, according to the lawsuits. Prison officials didn’t act on those warnings, the suits contend.

On the day of the attack, April 26, 2017, Wissink became angry about the a decision not to move him to a different bunk, according to the lawsuits.

At about 5 p.m. that day, Callahan — a 29-year-old sergeant who had worked with the state prison system since 2012 — wrote a disciplinary report for Wissink for failing to follow a direct order, the lawsuits state. About a half an hour later, Wissink allegedly started a fire in a trash can in his cell block.

Callahan responded with a fire extinguisher.

According to documents from the medical examiner, and the departments of labor and public safety, here’s what happened next:

One of the two officers who responded with Callahan went into the dorm but stopped. She stood in the doorway as Callahan rushed to the fire.

Callahan took the 50-gallon trash can into a bathroom area. Then Wissink attacked her from behind.

When Callahan tried to run, he threw water that had been heated in a microwave at her face. That stopped Callahan. Wissink tried to cut her with a piece of glass – one of the homemade weapons that inmates call shanks.

Then he grabbed the fire extinguisher, stood over Callahan and repeatedly beat her in the head.

An autopsy report said Callahan suffered burns to her face, chest and left arm. She died of traumatic head injuries, the report concluded.

Staff shortages linked to other deaths

Wissink, 38, was convicted of first-degree murder in 2004 and was sentenced to life. He has also been charged with murder in Callahan’s death, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

He spent his first few years at different maximum-security prisons before being transferred to medium custody — where inmates are given more freedom and are housed in dormitory style rooms rather than cells.

Over the next two years, prison officials cited Wissink for at least six infractions, including fighting, possessing an illegal drug and having a phone. In October 2015, they moved Wissink back to maximum security. He stayed there for a year before returning to medium custody in October 2016, according to the lawsuit.

“DPS should not have promoted Inmate Wissink from close custody to medium custody at this time because he was dangerous and did not follow rules,” the lawsuits state.

Wissink’s attack on Callahan was the first of five fatal attacks on prison employees in 2017.

In October of that year, four prison employees died during a failed escape attempt from Pasquotank Correctional Institution, another eastern North Carolina prison. The inmates allegedly hatched their plan from a prison sewing plant, where one officer oversaw more than 30 inmates.

Prison employees Veronica Darden, Justin Smith, Wendy Shannon and Geoff Howe died. Eight other employees were injured.

Inmates stabbed the employees with scissors and beat them with hammers, according to a prison disciplinary report.

Both Pasqotank and Bertie have had officer vacancy rates climb to more than 30 percent in recent years, data show.

Following the attack at Pasquotank, the National Institute of Corrections — an arm of the U.S. Justice Department — found a litany of staffing and security problems in the prison’s sewing plant.

According to the federal report, prison staff had allowed inmates to wander through doors that should have been locked and had let them turn a stock room into a “hiding place” concealed from security cameras. Inmates even checked out their own tools — including scissors with six-inch blades.

No one was watching the surveillance cameras that monitored the plan, the report found.

©2019 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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